Bihar has once again settled for votes being cast for caste. Nowhere else is the caste factor as strong and as decisive as in Bihar. And if this indeed is true, then it definitely spells trouble for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leading to tension on the ground.

With Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and BJP supporters fighting pitched battles in Chhapra, Bihar on May 20, 2024 as fifth phase of voting was underway, it has become increasingly clear that tempers are frayed on both sides of the fence. The clashes which continued the day after polling, resulted in one RJD supporter getting killed and left several others injured. Two BJP supporters have been detained.

Chhapra is part of Saran parliamentary constituency which has become a high profile constituency because senior BJP leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy , who is the sitting MP, is facing a tough challenge this time from RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav’s daughter Rohini Acharya. She had shot to fame after donating a kidney to her father.

Acharya calls herself the ‘Shravan Kumari’ of this constituency, and has been aggressively attacking Rudy for remaining absent during times of crisis in the area.

In an election which is marked by the absence of any one single factor, voters’ apathy is evident by the absence of long queues at polling booths. It has left parties worried, and even the smallest provocation is enough to degenerate into physical violence.

The trouble in Chhapra reportedly started after Rohini Acarya visited a booth after getting information that BJP supporters were inside to influence voting. When she reached there, she was prevented from going inside, Rudy’s supporters allegedly hurled abuses at her. Soon supporters on both sides started raining blows on each other.

After much struggle, administrative officers brought the situation under control at that time but violence erupted again on the next day, resulting in the death of one person. Internet services have been suspended in the area for two days and prohibitory orders are in place.

The incident has the potential of turning into a Rajput Vs Yadav battle in Bihar and might affect voting in the next two rounds of voting.

According to reports from the ground, massive anti-incumbency against sitting MPs is sweeping Bihar this time, resulting in people breaking caste and creed barriers in order to defeat them. This has resulted in frayed nerves in the ruling dispensation.

“There may be no anti-incumbency against Modi, but people are angry with sitting MPs, so much so that they are breaking caste and sect barriers to vote them out. The lure of Modi has waned, unlike in 2019, and basically Bihar is back to its old pattern of primarily voting along caste lines,” senior Congress leader Shakeel Ahmad said.

What this means on the ground is that the Muslim-Yadav (MY) factor, which has been the forte of RJD for decades, but was disrupted in 2019, is back, making it a formidable opponent.

Other backward castes and extremely backward castes, who had been supporting the NDA, partially because of Modi lure and also because of Nitish Kumar’s pull factor, habr ruptured this time and their votes may go for either defeating the sitting MP or supporting their caste kin, even if he happens to be in the opposition camp.

“Yadavs, for example, had voted in favour of many NDA candidates last time. But this time they have not voted for them,” the senior Congress leader who is known for keeping his finger on the voters’ pulse said. He reeled off names of constituencies where the sitting MPs are struggling this time.

In Darbhanga, for example, Gopaljee Thakur of the BJP is facing a tough challenge from Lalit Kumar Yadav of RJD. In Jhanjharpur, Rampreet Mandal of Janata Dal-United (JD-U), who is the sitting MP, is getting cornered by Suman Kumar Mahaseth of Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP). He used to be in the BJP.

Mahaseth, who is assured of the MY support in addition to his own caste kin, is also drawing support from the BJP-JD-U camp because of his old connection.

In neighbouring Samastipur, children of two Nitish Kumar Cabinet ministers are pitted against each other. Samastipur seat has gone to the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) which has fielded Shambhavi Chaudhary, daughter of Ashok Chaudhary, a minister in Nitish government.

This seat has gone to the Congress quota which has fielded Sunny Hazari, son of Maheshwar Hazari, again a minister in Nitish government. Shambhavi, who is a greenhorn, is facing a tough challenge from Sunny who is more active and has a good reputation in the area.

In Bihar, it is the OBCs and EBCs, which decide the outcome of any election and this time, this segment is completely silent. As per the latest caste census in Bihar, of the total population of 13.07 crores, OBCs and EBCs form a whopping 63 percent of the population, 27.13 and 36 percent respectively. And this huge segment is completely silent this time.

Similarly, Dalits, who are 19.65 percent, are also reticent about their preferences. Upper castes, who are 15.52 percent of the population, no doubt, are mostly with the NDA, but even their support base is cracking where the anti-incumbency factor of the local candidate is in play. Since a “Modi wave” is missing, the local factors are proving decisive.

According to Dr Ahmad, another interesting buzz this time is the grapevine that if BJP comes back to power this time, it will be there for the next 25-30 years and this has created quite a stir. Those who oppose BJP, have united on the other side irrespective of caste or creed.

What, however, could actually work for the BJP is the fact that despite the huge anti-incumbency factor, even if hordes of voters vote against it, it may only result in reducing the vote margin, because the margin for victory was huge last time.

Also, there is the fear that there could be manipulation in the total number of votes cast, favouring the BJP. After all, how was it possible that the number of votes polled intriguingly went up by one crore days after polling? The answer to this question can only be known on June 4, but Bihar, as always, is yet again proving to be an enigma.